I Called Him Morgan

I CALLED HIM MORGAN, not rated, doc­u­men­tary, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Bill Kohlhaase

Jazz his­tory is scarred with mu­si­cians who burned brightly and died young. The generation that emerged from the be­bop move­ment was par­tic­u­larly hard hit. Its high­est flyer, alto sax­o­phon­ist Char­lie “Bird” Parker, known to live as fast as he played, was dead at thirty-four. The pe­riod’s trum­peters were es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble. Fats Navarro, an in­di­vid­u­al­ist with stun­ning tech­nique said to rank at the time with Dizzy Gille­spie and Miles Davis, suc­cumbed to nar­cotics and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in 1950 at the age of twenty-six. Clif­ford Brown, ex­pand­ing on the in­no­va­tions of his friend and men­tor Navarro, was twenty-five in 1956 when he was killed in a car ac­ci­dent. Booker Little, born in 1938, in­flu­enced by both Brown and Navarro, was on to some­thing that moved away from hard bop all to­gether when he died from ure­mia in 1963. Lee Morgan, born the same year as Little and play­ing in Gille­spie’s or­ches­tra by the time he was eigh­teen, was thirty-three when he was shot to death by his com­mon-law wife in 1972. Sto­ries like these, in­volv­ing race, health, and life­style, aren’t con­fined to any one in­stru­ment, or any sin­gle artis­tic genre. And scores of jazz trum­peters have made im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to the legacy dur­ing long, fruit­ful ca­reers. Yet the prom­ise of Navarro, Brown, Little, and Morgan con­tin­ues to haunt jazz to this day. What might we be hear­ing to­day if they had sur­vived?

Morgan’s ca­reer is the best doc­u­mented of the group, prob­a­bly be­cause he started so young. He be­gan play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally when he was fif­teen and was a stand-out in fel­low trum­peter Gille­spie’s en­sem­ble (Morgan adopted Gille­spie’s bent horn with its up­turned bell for a while). Af­ter leav­ing Gille­spie, he joined drum­mer Art Blakey’s Jazz Mes­sen­gers and recorded some of the drum­mer’s most in­flu­en­tial al­bums. His own record­ings for the Blue Note la­bel, in­clud­ing clas­sics The Sidewinder, Search for the New

Land, and Corn­bread brought to­gether mu­si­cians such as pi­anist Herbie Han­cock, sax­o­phon­ist Hank Mob­ley, and drum­mer Billy Hig­gins, in ses­sions that de­fined the chang­ing face of the mu­sic dur­ing the 1960s. Kas­par Collin’s somber doc­u­men­tary, I Called

Him Morgan, ben­e­fits from the mu­si­cian’s ex­ten­sive record­ing his­tory, the clas­sic black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy of Fran­cis Wolff and oth­ers, and per­for­mance films of a young Morgan as a mem­ber of Blakey’s Jazz Mes­sen­gers be­gin­ning in 1958. It’s a vis­ual treat with grainy, glow­ing neon street footage of old New York City and Los An­ge­les cut with beau­ti­ful vi­sions of skies filled with snowflakes and birds done by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Brad­ford Young (Ar­rival, Selma) and Erik Vall­sten. This vis­ual im­agery lifts I Called Him Morgan above the usual jazz bios with great mu­sic and the ex­pected in­ter­views of col­leagues and ac­quain­tances.

What re­ally sets Collin’s film apart, how­ever, is an in­ter­view he dug up of Morgan’s wife, He­len Morgan, the woman who shot him, col­lected by au­thor and ed­u­ca­tor Larry Reni Thomas in 1996 af­ter He­len had served time for man­slaugh­ter and a month be­fore her death. From the film’s be­gin­ning — city scenes and close­ups of news­pa­per head­lines an­nounc­ing the trum­peter’s shoot­ing — we fol­low two vastly dif­fer­ent lives and see how they came to be en­twined. Collin knows how to find a touch of drama even in the film’s most mun­dane mo­ments. In a show of the di­rec­tor’s re­spect for sto­ry­telling, Thomas re­lates how he met He­len, and then, in a kind of jazz-ob­ses­sive’s rit­ual, loads the cas­sette into a worn player. He­len’s story — she had two chil­dren by the time she was four­teen, left the coun­try (“I never liked it at all”), and went first to Wilm­ing­ton, North Carolina, and then to New York City to es­cape a bad mar­riage with a much older man — is as fas­ci­nat­ing as that of the cel­e­brated trum­peter. In the film, you see a de­ter­mined and res­o­lute woman, who is sur­pris­ingly frank and in­sight­ful about who she is (“I will not sit here and tell you that I was so nice”). Lee’s and He­len’s vastly dif­fer­ent paths up to the point they met de­fines the in­tri­ca­cies of their re­la­tion­ship. He­len was a dozen years older than Lee. The trum­peter had reached bot­tom, ad­dicted and home­less. He needed her and she needed him to need her. He­len took charge and helped get him clean and ac­tive again. When the end fi­nally ar­rived, there was more than a “Frankie and Johnny”-style jeal­ousy at play. In a strange sense, they were made for each other.

The con­tem­po­rary in­ter­views with Morgan’s as­so­ciates, in­clud­ing bassist Jymie Mer­ritt, Gille­spie drum­mer Char­lie Per­sip, and drum­mer Al­bert “Tootie” Heath, who re­lates a story about Morgan rac­ing his car through Wash­ing­ton Square Park at night, are fine-enough filler. Sax­o­phon­ist Wayne Shorter, never an easy in­ter­view, is par­tic­u­larly re­veal­ing about Morgan’s psy­che, and how cognac played a role when the two were front­line part­ners in Blakey’s Jazz Mes­sen­gers. The sax­o­phon­ist com­poser Ben­nie Maupin pro­vides first-hand in­sight into He­len and Lee’s unique re­la­tion­ship. It’s left to sax­o­phon­ist Billy Harper to de­scribe the scene that tragic night at Slugs’ sa­loon. The most fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject is He­len’s son, Al Har­ri­son, her first­born. Adopted at birth, Har­ri­son didn’t see his mother again un­til af­ter the shoot­ing, and his view of her is fresh and sur­pris­ingly warm. What is missed is Lee Morgan’s voice, prob­a­bly be­cause there’s little record of it (Collin has a rep­u­ta­tion as a thor­ough re­searcher). Let us just say that the mu­sic re­veals the man’s per­son­al­ity, if not his soul.

Young man with a trum­pet: Lee Morgan, left, with Art Blakey’s Jazz Mes­sen­gers (Blakey on drums)

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